Bipolar Disorder: What It Means and How You Can Help

Someone tells you they have bipolar. You don’t feel you really know what it is, and you definitely don’t feel you know how to help them. Here we cover the foundations of bipolar disorder so you know what to say and how to help.

Kanye West, Winston Churchill, Mariah Carey, Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix. They have all been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition which involves alternating periods of intense mania (very high mood and energy) and severe depression.

Bipolar disorder tends to be episodic rather than persistent. This means people with the disorder can often have long periods of feeling fine. Their work and personal life go on as usual.

In fact, people with bipolar disorder are often highly creative, socially sensitive, perceptive, and have a strong drive to make the world better.

Extreme ups and downs

During episodes, people with bipolar disorder have extreme moods. A manic episode can feel like an extremely high mood, or feeling very active or agitated. They can have racing thoughts and rapid speech.

People describe this high as “feeling like your brakes have failed”. They can feel themselves going too far, too fast.

The depressive episode can feel like an extremely low mood with feelings of hopelessness and sadness.

For some people, these episodes can be less extreme than others. There are different types of bipolar disorder, and everyone experiences it differently.


How to support someone with bipolar disorder

  • Talk and listen

Allow and encourage them to talk about how they feel. They more we can talk about mental health at work, the healthier we’ll be.

That said, it’s important to respect their privacy. If they don’t want others to know about their mental health issues, then you mustn’t share with anyone else.

  • Ask them what helps

Your friend has probably lived with this for many years, and they know what helps and what doesn’t, both during and outside of episodes. Ask and respect their response; don’t try to problem-solve for them.

  • Encourage them to keep up with treatment

It can be tempting for people with bipolar to stop medication or stop seeing a therapist when they feel well for a long time. This can be particularly true during episodes of mania, when they feel unstoppable.

With professional treatment, bipolar disorder can be managed well. Treatments usually involve a mix of medication, therapy and lifestyle changes.

You can be the firm voice of reason reminding them to keep going with whatever treatment plan they are following.


Watch for symptoms

The up and down episodes are often pre-empted by early symptoms.

The signs of oncoming mania include:

  • Sleeping less
  • Restlessness
  • Speaking rapidly
  • Increase in activity level
  • Irritability or aggression

Depression warning signs include:

  • Fatigue
  • Sleeping more
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Change in appetite